Inside Chabad’s 6,500-person dinner in New Jersey
The annual dinner of the Hasidic movement based in Brooklyn, whose event is called the International Conference of Shluchim, is one of the largest single organized Jewish meals in the world.
In the chill of Sunday night in Edison, N.J., a crowd of bearded men in black fedoras embarked on a 15-minute walk through a seemingly endless parking lot, a field of dirt and then down an asphalt road, past buses, police patrol cars with sirens flashing, a row of portable toilets and finally along the gravel walk that took them around and then into a huge convention center where they could hear the pounding music of the Shluchim conference, the annual gathering of Chabad’s global network of more than 5,600 emissaries.
The convention is not always the largest on the Jewish calendar — AIPAC’s Policy Conference, when it occurred, drew well over 10,000 people — but the annual dinner of the Hasidic movement based in Brooklyn, whose event is called the International Conference of Shluchim, is one of the largest single organized Jewish meals in the world.
While many galas draw hundreds of people to numbered tables in tony banquet halls, the Shluchim conference’s tables had to be organized by a combined index of letters and numbers, allowing enough space for the 6,500 attendees at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center. Several journalists were seated at M20. In practice, the room, which was filled almost entirely by men, looked like a never-ending sea of black hats in the haze of spotlights, with most eyes directed toward enormous television screens lining the hall. A parallel women’s conference is held annually and will take place in February.
Officially, the night had two themes: a celebration of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s late leader popularly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe; and a tribute to the Jewish commandment of hakhel, a gathering of the Jewish people intended to take place once every seven years.
In commemoration of Schneerson’s birth, the gathering celebrated more than 120 emissary couples who took up posts in new locations over the past year, as well as the founding of 120 new Hebrew schools and 120 new mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths. In addition, the evening included the announcement of a new $2.5 million grant from the family of the night’s keynote speaker, private equity investor George Rohr, which will fund four new Chabad day camps in North America.
Rohr has donated what is estimated to be tens of millions of dollars to Chabad institutions in the former Soviet Union and on campuses across the country, many of whose buildings bear his family’s name. In his speech, he called campus Chabad houses a bulwark against rising antisemitism, and gave extravagant praise to the movement as key to the future of Jewish life.
“From the perspective of return on the tzedakah investment, Chabad offers the best bang for the buck,” he said. “In all of Jewish history, there has never been a phenomenon remotely comparable to the Rebbe’s army.”
Chabad has become increasingly engaged with Israel advocacy, and Israel’s political and religious leadership showed up for the event. In addition to including a roster of the movement’s rabbis, the night’s agenda also featured a speech by Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Also in attendance were Israeli Consul General Asaf Zamir and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Lau drew applause when he repeated his long-standing call to limit the parameters of Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. A similar call by allies of incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently provoked protest from American Jewish leaders.
“Already 10 years ago, I requested for that mistake to be changed, of the third generation [being eligible] under the Law of Return,” Lau said, adding that he wanted the government to “fix it in order to ensure that the state of Israel be a Jewish state, a state of the Jews.”
The night was also punctuated by references to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The program opened with the child of emissaries in Ukraine singing a slow, almost mournful song, and a video about Ukrainian emissaries later in the program documented how they arrived in Ukraine before the fall of the Soviet Union and how they have helped their communities since the invasion began.
Chabad’s network of 177 emissary families in Ukraine has taken a central role in providing aid during the invasion and ensuing humanitarian crisis. In addition, it has made life more difficult for the hundreds of Chabadniks in Russia. Last month, a Russian official called Chabad a “neo-pagan cult” striving for supremacy; his superior later apologized.
But Chabad’s enthusiasm for being in Russia hasn’t dimmed; When Russia was called out during a country-by-country roll call of the movement’s emissaries, the room erupted in dancing to a traditional Russian Jewish melody.
The segments on Ukraine seemed to advance the message that, because Chabad emissaries faced adversity beginning when they arrived in Ukraine decades ago, the current hardship will not deter them. Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky, the emissary in the city of Sumy, Ukraine, who fled with his family in the first weeks of the war, recalled that an official suggested he was crazy for applying for permanent residency in 2009.
“We are crazy,” he told the crowd. “Crazy about fulfilling the Rebbe’s mission.”